You Can’t Go Home Again, the novel that Edward Aswell extracted from from a vast manuscript by the then-dead Thomas Wolfe, is an exhausting read. I spent some time grappling with its proportions on a windy night somewhere near Exeter, lying on a lumpy futon, under some bedclothes that smelled of a compulsive blend of lemon and garlic. I was on a two day tour of the West Country, playing in a ramshackle (nobody thought to tune the harpischord after a five-hour drive, and there was no time for dinner before the show) semi-staged production of an operatic work by Handel. So as not to breach confidentiality, I’ll just say that it’s a piece in English, and one of the characters is a monstrous being. I’ve still never been paid. But that’s beside the point. Feeling somewhat dismayed by the professional circumstances that had brought me to this point, Wolfe’s offering, a volume in a stack of books behind the bedroom armchair, seemed the obvious choice for a Weltschmerz-ridden cellist. I thought it was autobiographical. Starting at 11.45pm, it soon became obvious that I wouldn’t get very far through the book at that time of night, especially as I had to keep stopping so that I could sniff at the lemony-garlicky vapours that emanated from the eiderdown.
The great conceit of You Can’t is that George Webber writes an outstanding novel about his hometown, which unfortunately enrages its residents with its portrayal of personalities and mores. Beleaguered by death-threats, Webber takes himself into exile; in billowing clouds of prose and the company of a rowdy crew, he moves through the great metropolises, New York, Paris, and eventually Berlin. Berlin, of course, is lurching into the initial throes of National Socialism, which oppress Webber, and he finds himself back in America, a country that – in the words of Wikipedia – he ‘rediscovers … with love, sorrow, and hope.’ I must confess that I contemplated houselifting You Can’t: after all, it was only hidden behind an armchair in the room of my kindly hosts. But, the fact that they had given us a delicious supper after the show, massaged our egos, and promised bacon and eggs in the morning, made me repent of my felonious intention. And, while I knew there was going to be a very long drive home after the second show, it would also be a long drive in a dark minibus, which would make reading impossible. So, those kindly souls still have their Wolfe, even if they never find it again because I slid it under a cupboard, rather than behind the armchair. ‘I’ll get this on Kindle!’ was my great, but still unrealised, ambition.
Now, in May 2016, I have been ‘home’ for three days short of five months. My self-imposed exile, initially undertaken for the purposes of advanced study and self-improvement, lasted for ten years and four months. I had arrived at Heathrow in state of disorientated and baffled anticipation, waiting for LIFE TO BEGIN in September 2005, wearing a pair of stout Baxter’s yard boots. In January 2016 I was back at Heathrow (Terminal 2 this time), wearing the same boots, bursting with palpable excitement about that lengthy chapter having reached its conclusion. A dear friend came to the airport to see me off: this act moved me, but occasioned a sort of emotional Big Bang. If you’re full of glee (de-mob happy would be an understatement), it makes responding to somebody’s brave lip-biting a tremendous challenge. My only fear was that one of my planes would crash, wasting the money I’d spent on a ticket, and all the other money I’d spent on becoming a British Citizen, so that I could return to the arena of exile in the future (to escape all those Wolfeian death-threats etc etc).
There were no crashes, and 30 hours later I tipped out of an almost empty plane in Wellington, at 7am, searching around the terminal for the smiling faces of my family. They weren’t there (in fact, they were still asleep, having decided I was arriving a day later), but this did not crush my glee. Instead I skipped and pranced towards the luggage carousel, retrieved my cellos from a mysterious door (orange-gloved hands emerged through the door, and silently handed me first my modern then my baroque cellos, and receded without acknowledging my expressions of gratitude. Meanwhile, to the tune of the Radetky March, I burbled internally ‘I’m back, I’m back, I’m back, back back’, crammed my possessions into a taxi, and went home.
Some symbolism should be read into the wearing of the boots, perhaps a misguided attempt to Come Home. In fact, the reasons were more prosaic: (a) I’d forgotten to pack the boots into one of my freight boxes, because they were sitting in a Tesco Bag for Life under my desk, and (b) they were too bulky and too heavy to fit into the very small suitcase that comprised my luggage. The two cellos accounted for over 20kg of my 25kg allowance. It was easiest to carry the boots on my feet. Convenience notwithstanding, I’m sure a Freudian would interrogate the ‘memory lapse’ which left the boots lying in their bag under the desk (and a ‘Bag for Life’ at that….), and if any Freudian would like to do so, you can find my email address elsewhere on this site. I look forward to your analysis.
Meanwhile, my prose billows, and I’ve wandered from the point, which is that by 8am on 22 January 2016, I found myself at home again, or not. Not, because it was not the house of my childhood. My father inhabits that one, up on the hill, and now entirely painted cream (inside, anyway); my mother and brother live down the hill, about 3 minutes’ walk away, in the house that was formerly my grandfather’s. There is far more room up the hill, but as my father eschews all technology (well, the car and the internet), and has adopted monk-like asceticism, these are not the circumstances in which crucial musicological research is easy. Sometimes one just needs JStor at 2am. The change of address rendered physically Wolfe’s words – ‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … ‘ – in a way that makes home-going easier, I think. The semi-fresh beginning does have a useful function of nostalgia-reduction, but brings its own piquancy: my bed is the one on/in which my grandfather died. I must say, it’s very comfortable, and I’ve slept extremely well on it.
Despite arriving home with a cough that would’ve made Violetta Valéry sound like a hypochondriac, a cough so racking that it made a small hole in my tonsil where untoward amounts of pestilence lurked, I threw myself back into my environment, literally. The sea is so close to the house that it is criminal not to immerse in it regularly. Nursing a semi-irrational view that English coastal waters were alive with E.coli, dead dogs, and nuclear waste, I had avoided ‘sea-bathing’ during my years there, preferring the frigid waters of Brockwell and Tooting Bec Lidos for my feats of strength. Now, it was time to prove myself in the briny: I entered a 2km sea-swim race in February, a vigorous baptism, complete with a salt-chafed neck. Then, to engage more fully with the environment, I thought that doing three triathlons (short ones) in a single morning would be an even better means of reintegration with wave and wind. And so it was, although the indirect result was two engagements with tonsillitis, and a lot of penicillin. The immune system has its own struggles with homecoming, but perhaps succumbing to, and beating off, Wellington’s Strep bacteria has a majestic symbolism of its own.
Recalling Wolfe has made me prolix, and I’ve wandered from the point of whether one can go home, or where home is. Of course, you can’t walk in the same river twice, or something like that. I am back in the same city, and like Webber, have invested a lot of energy in rediscovery. Some things are very different: people, particularly, have dispersed, and amongst the people still here, there are new friendships and feuds, illnesses, houses, disasters, and careers. It’s too much to ask ‘What’s happened?’ Instead you have to absorb a lot by osmosis. By the same reasoning, I don’t need to explain much either, even if I could explain; the feeling that the people in close geographical proximity know far less about than those several thousand kilometres away, is a curious one. There are new people as well, and all the negotiations of character and personality and status, whether at the university, at the pool, or with friends and their friends. My struggle is that it’s tempting to remain anonymous and silent, confident that I have friends elsewhere, and there’s no real need to make all the effort that new social intimacies demand.
Meanwhile, the unchanging things – particular views, of the harbour, of trees, of the Orongorongo ranges – stop my heart every day ( I hope it’s the view, rather than the Strep bugs invading my heart valves) – and it is those things, more than anything, that make one’s home, as we are creatures of environment. I remember visiting Kew Gardens, and finding the New Zealand ‘corner’ of one of the great glasshouses: here was a poor ngaio tree, although more of a stunted sapling, weedy-looking with tired leaves. It was a poor excuse for a tree really, nothing like the ngaio trees that I knew, the ngaio trees which grow like weeds, but are useless for firewood because of the poisons they supposedly exude. I felt it was necessary, critical even, to launch into a passionate explanation of what ngaio trees really are, defending their funny scratchy bark, and violently (bilious-looking) green leaves, which, like poisonous frog, advertise their toxicity with a boldly lurid flourish. I declaimed that it would have been better if the tree was uprooted and mulched than to leave it struggling in that glasshouse. Now, even ngaio trees inspire my attention and admiration. They still smell unpleasant, but the smell is, again, home.